Beyond books: library takes high-tech steps to ignite teens' creativity

Professional video equipment, performance stages, graphic-design software and 3D printers are just a few of the wow factors coming to Memphis’ Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library as part of a new teen learning lab set to open this summer.
When leaders of the Memphis Public Library and Information Center first started talking to their Teen Advisory Council about all that the planned teen learning lab will offer, the reaction was astonishment.

"What we got most," recalled library system director Keenon McCloy, "were things like, 'You'd let us do that?' 'You'd let us touch that equipment?' 'You'd let us check that out?' 'Really?!'"
If you haven't heard yet about the lab, due to open late this summer on two floors of the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library, you'll likely be just as amazed. Construction is scheduled to begin Feb. 3.

Wow-worthy features in the plans include the following:
  • A video production lab, complete with professional lighting and green-screen technology; 
  • A sound mixing lab, plus isolation booths for recording without distracting background noise;
  • Top-notch graphic design and game-creation software;
  • Laptop computers and iPads for in-lab use;
  • And for low-tech artists, a studio full of paint, brushes and other supplies.
"Just think of it as 8,300 square feet of pure genius," said Janae Pitts-Murdock, the library system's coordinator of teen services.

Requiring an estimated $1.9 million in fundraising, the lab is the biggest enhancement undertaken at the Central Library since it opened in a new building at 3030 Poplar Ave. in 2001. Proponents call it an overdue overhaul in how the library entices, excites and educates a demographic group seen as underserved, despite its strategic importance to the city.

"What we hope to build here," Pitts-Murdock said, "is the workforce of the future."

A space just for teens
Little kids love the library. That's clear even on a freezing weekday morning at the central branch, where they line up outside with their parents or caregivers, wait for the doors to open, then race toward the colorful tree art that flags the entrance to the children's section.

Thea Wilkens-Reed is 17 now, but she remembers the feeling.

"My parents would take us all of the time," she said. "I remember going up to the library desk with like 25 books to check out on my card and 10 more to get on my dad's card. And the librarians would be like, 'Are you going to read all of this?' And I was like, 'Yes, ma'am, and I'll be back in three weeks to get some more."

But libraries can lose their luster as kids get older.

"I feel like a lot of teens nowadays, when they think about the library, they just think of books," Wilkens-Reed said. "And when we're in school, you know, we're reading all of the time. So they think if they go to the library it will just be more reading."

As president of the Teen Advisory Council, Wilkens-Reed knows better. Perceptions notwithstanding, the library has long offered teens more than books.

One example is Teen Technology Camp, a 10-year-old program in which teens learn to design video games. The camp gets rave reviews, but can only accommodate 24 teens per summer, so many applicants get turned away. Unmet demand for the camp was one of many reasons leaders felt driven to offer more technology to kids year round, in a space of their own. Consider that of 450,000 library cardholders in the Memphis system, 50,000 are teens.

"Teens just don't have access to the kind of equipment and service we'll have in the teen learning lab anywhere else in our community," McCloy said. "Yes, there are some private schools that have pretty phenomenal resources. But we wanted to really reduce barriers to access and provide opportunity for as many youth as we possibly can."

HOMAGO heaven, STEAM central
The first step in making that dream come true was lots of research. As local leaders looked at what has worked and what hasn't in teen spaces elsewhere, they paid particular attention to what the Chicago Public Library has achieved with a space dubbed YOUmedia.

Working with the MacArthur Foundation, Chicago built YOUmedia on a principle called HOMAGO--an acronym that stands for Hanging Out, Messing Around & Geeking Out.

The theory behind HOMAGO is that teens are most creative and learn best in environments that first stimulate their curiosity, then allow them to follow it freely. That means giving them flexibility to move between solitary activities and collaborations, focused work and exploratory dabbling.

"So teens can tinker here and there, or they can completely immerse themselves in a project," explained Pitts-Murdock.
HOMAGO principles are evident in the teen learning lab's plan to use moveable furniture, make laptops and iPads available for labwide use and include loosely defined areas, such as the Play Café and the Brainstorming Center.

Beyond studying the latest thinking on how teens learn these days, library leaders investigated what teens need to learn these days. That involved meeting with officials from Shelby County Schools, the Achievement School District, Gestalt Community Schools and other K-12 educators--as well as local colleges and universities.

They wanted to ensure that the lab complements the growing emphasis on science, technology, engineering and math, commonly called the STEM disciplines. However, they also looked for ways to incorporates art at just about every opportunity--turning STEM into STEAM.

"Research has shown that students who are involved in art excel in other disciplines," Pitts-Murdoch said. "In Memphis so many schools are reducing and eliminating art programs. So having art spaces in our lab will help to fill some gaps, as well as improving their self-esteem and giving them a creative outlet to express themselves."

Partnerships in progress
The city has provided enough money to staff the new space with specialists in teen services, and Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. has been vocal in his support for the project. And the Memphis Library Foundation is leading the effort to raise an additional $1.9 million for construction costs and to maintain and update the lab's equipment. The campaign has $1.55 million so far.

But money isn't enough. The lab will need volunteers to serve as mentors and tutors to help teens with their schoolwork and projects, as well as subject-matter experts and programs to show teens what's possible with the tools at their fingertips. 

To that end, library leaders are in talks with more than 40 organizations that have promised to help in some way. McCloy and Pitts-Murdock emphasized that specifics are still being worked out, but cited the following examples of the community’s willingness to pitch in:
  • Start Co., which already hosts entrepreneurship seminars at the Central Library, will also be a partner in educating lab users on entrepreneurship.
  • The Memphis Brooks Museum of Art is a partner on the lab's Technology Gallery. This will be a space where teens display art that they create at the library. At some point, leaders hope to offer teen artists the opportunity to design and curate their own exhibits.
  • Stax Museum of American Soul Music and Stax Music Academy will work with the library on programming to help teens make the most of the learning lab's sound-studio equipment.
  • The Society for Information Management will provide technical resources, subject matter experts, mentors and workshop leaders.
  • US FIRST will help to arrange programs for teens interested in robotics.
  • Multiple local colleges and universities will share faculty and other resources, potentially even offering teens ways to earn college credit at the lab.
Spreading the word
Wilkens-Reed and other members of the library's Teen Advisory Council were among the first people invited to weigh in on early designs for the teen learning lab. Planners had done their homework, but they still wanted answers from the target audience: How could we make this even better? Is it something you would actually use?

Thea's answer was a resounding yes.

"I was just shocked by how much time and effort is going into really making this place special for us," she said. "I feel like this is definitely something that, when the final product is done and people come in and see it, it's just going to blow their minds."
Teenagers watch a televised TED Talk livestream during a kickoff event for the new Teen Learning Lab inside the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library.
The home-schooled high school junior plays four instruments and can hardly wait to use the Sound Mixing Lab to make audition tapes to go with her college applications.

"It's hard at my house trying to record on just my Mac, especially with my dogs in the background and my family coming in and out," she said. "It's so refreshing to know that next year there will be a place I can go where I can concentrate and there's good technology to work with, and I can hopefully come out with a good, solid recording."

Seventeen-year-old Patton Orr's answer is also yes.

The 17-year-old junior at Memphis University School joined Wilkens-Reed at a library event held Saturday partly to stir buzz about the lab and partly to launch a Teen TED Club that the lab inspired Orr to organize. Activities included watching and discussing a livestream of the TEDYouth 2014 conference in Brooklyn, N.Y., and drew about 100 teens.

"I think what they've decided to put into this teen learning lab is completely what would engage teens," Patton said. "I think the only thing that they really have to do is advertise it and let teens know that it's there."

See a teen learning lab in action
Plans for the teen learning lab at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library draw heavily from the example set by the Chicago Public Library's space for teens, dubbed YOUMedia. Watch a video on YouMedia here.

Want to help name Memphis' teen lab?
"Teen learning lab" is what it's being called for now, but library leaders bet local teens can come up with something better. Submit your idea here by Jan. 15. The author of the chosen name will win a $250 gift card and special recognition.

Want to make a donation?
Find forms here to help fund the teen learning lab or other library needs.

Get updates on teen services at the library
Stay posted on the teen learning lab, Teen TED Club and other teen services at the library on Twitter or by checking the Memphis Public Library & Information Center website.


Read more articles by Amy French.

Amy French is a Memphis-born freelance writer and communication consultant who got her start as an award-winning journalist for The Huntsville Times in Alabama and The Charlotte Observer in North Carolina.
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